For Better or Worse, Governors Ball 2021 Was a Return to Pre-COVID Normalcy
With performances from A$AP Rocky, Freddie Gibbs, Kehlani, and more, Governors Ball 2021 felt as exhilarating and frustrating as it was before COVID-19 crippled the music industry.
Over the weekend, major music festivals returned to New York City as Governors Ball 2021 turned Citi Field’s parking lots into festival grounds and more importantly, an oasis of pre-pandemic normalcy. Outside of vaccination and COVID test checks before entry, Governors Ball was a return to its old form — for better or worse.
Some of the best performances the entire weekend came from artists who appeared to be making up for the lost time. 24KGoldn gifted the crowd with a world premiere performance of his unreleased song “Prada.” Cordae debuted part of a new song where he flexes about hanging out with Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and making $7 million during the pandemic without a single show. Kehlani didn’t debut any new music but did perform her Zedd-featured “Good Thing” collaboration for what she says was only the second time ever.
Unreleased @24kGoldn at #GovBallNYC? 👀👀👀 pic.twitter.com/mGLKzAfqmR
— Keith Nelson Jr (@JusAire) September 27, 2021
Rising Hip-Hop and R&B artist TeaMarr told Okayplayer she only had one full rehearsal prior to her first major festival performance since the pandemic and still brought a fan on stage for a sensual lap dance to her sultry song “Tick.” “I for sure added that for Gov Ball. That was the first time I brought somebody on stage. It was very exciting,” TeaMarr remarked with a jovial chuckle. “I was letting my inner self flow and letting go.”
The face-to-face proximity TeaMarr encouraged underscored the split sentiment artists had on how much the pandemic would alter their live performances. Freddie Gibbs sprayed champagne in the crowd during his raucous Bacardi Stage performance. Fans draped over him while he stood on the barricade leaning into the audience minutes after joking about Nicki Minaj’s COVID-19 vaccine misinformation and how, “If we catch it, fuck it, we all got it. We’re all going to die tonight.” Olu from EarthGang also scaled the barricade during the group’s performance which directly preceded Gibbs’. Smino, on the other hand, made it a point to let the crowd know his penchant for performing in the crowd was being curtailed by “pandemic restrictions.”
Of the festival-goers who spoke with Okayplayer, most took Governors Ball 2021 as a form of escapism, eschewing any concern over the pandemic in favor of preserving their good time. While taking in Burna Boy’s radiant performance on the main stage, Hjordys Perez Matos, Legal & Premier Partner Operations at Facebook, told Okayplayer she had heard artists address the pandemic by mentioning how long it’s been since they have performed. But, she did opine about the lack of pandemic awareness exhibited by the artists. “It would be nice if the artists would say, ‘Hey, let’s keep each other safe.’ But, I don’t know what their politics are around that.”
The artists who played unreleased music or addressed the ongoing pandemic exhibited a level of empathy for the fans whose first live show experience since the start of the pandemic was Governors Ball. It felt like a return to pre-pandemic normalcy until the typical frustrations of a festival were exacerbated by the nearly two-year drought on live shows. A$AP Rocky’s Saturday night headlining performance was his first in his hometown in nearly two years and he pulled out the stops with masked men dispersed through the crowd as agents of chaos meant to incite mosh pits at will, an inflatable car being passed around the crowd and Rocky performing amongst a technicolor wall of screen projectors. However, he only performed roughly seven songs before his set ended so abruptly he was left pleading to at least be able to walk out to his “Peso” song. This is when returning to pre-pandemic normalcy was a terrible decision.
On the final day, Governors Ball organizers and two of the three main attractions — Young Thug and 21 Savages — robbed many fans of their first time seeing the chart-toppers perform a full set. 21 Savage’s 6pm one-hour set was scheduled right before Young Thug’s 7pm one-hour set, back-to-back sequence. Instead, fans were greeted to two 45 minute delays to both of their sets with Savage’s performance starting practically when it was scheduled to end. By the time Savage’s set was 40 minutes late, you could see people in the crowd grow not only restless but visibly saddened to have to sacrifice seeing Thug in order to wait for Savage to appear. That’s when the domino effect of festivals crushed all expectations as Thug didn’t touch the stage until 70 minutes after his scheduled time and proceeded to do a handful of songs before abruptly telling New York City thanks for coming out, and exiting the stage. Those mishaps are typical for festivals and that’s the problem.
There was no transparency during the entire ordeal. Neither the festival organizers nor anyone from Thug or Savage’s team gave any updates on when fans should expect to see them perform as the sets got further delayed. No one apologized for the lateness. Fans just had to take truncated performances as consolation prizes. For a festival featuring artists who went the extra mile with their performances out of respect for the fans, this lapse in transparency and disregard for fan satisfaction felt incredibly disrespectful and out of touch with how special this weekend was for thousands of people.
(Update: A festival spokesperson emailed Okayplayer a statement:
“Our stages were set and ready to go, but unfortunately certain artists who we respect as dynamic performers were late in arriving to the festival. This resulted in delayed starts and in some cases shortened sets to avoid impacting the sets of other artists who arrived on time.”)
Governors Ball 2021 felt as exhilarating and frustrating as it was before COVID-19 crippled the music industry. There was a golden opportunity for the festival organizers and artists alike to show fans they weren’t spending the last 18 months just working on being COVID compliant but also on delivering an improved experience once it was safe for festivals to return. Some did, most didn’t, and fans were left with pre-pandemic normalcy that didn’t meet post-pandemic expectations.
Keith Nelson Jr. is a journalist who has covered hip-hop, technology, and movies/TV for VIBE, Revolt, Digital Trends, Flaunt Magazine, and more. Follow him @JusAire